Sometimes it can be hard to identify what you're feeling. You can tell something is up but you don't quite know why - which can lead us into a heightened state, and sometimes with no resolution. Emotions are strongly connected to physical sensations, and learning to be able to listen to your body will help you name and understand your emotions, and ultimately yourself, better.
Listening to Your Body
You’re body tells you a lot. But with the hustle and bustle of everyday life it’s easy to miss something it’s saying. This could be missing a cue from your body that you’re on the verge of getting sick or that you’re exhausting yourself. This could be missing a cue from your body that you’re not safe, or your values are being challenged. In order to better understand your emotions, you first need to be able to listen to your body.
Have you ever felt a knot in your stomach before a big event? This connection can be so strong that 50-90% of people with IBS also are diagnosed with anxiety or depression. The link between emotions and physical sensations was examined through heat mapping over 700 participants from Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan. I often hear from clients about sweaty palms and a flutter in their chest when they are nervous or anxious. I hear about a flushed face and tense shoulders with anger, and heavy limbs with sadness. Everyone is different, but if you are unsure where to even start looking this graphic can be a helpful guide. Use this to get you started on thinking about and paying attention to where you feel different emotions in your body.
Put It Into Practice
Now it’s your turn to pay attention to yourself – print off the outline below and mark off where you feel different emotions with different colours. You’ll feel different sensations at different emotional intensities. Make note of this. For example, on a 1-10 scale of anxiety, you’ll have different sensations at a 3 or 4 than an 8 or 9. If you notice you start to tap your feet or fingers at a 3, note that with a “3” next to your feet/fingers with your anxiety color. If at an 8 you have shortness of breath, trouble speaking, or a dry mouth; write “8” with the anxiety color in the corresponding area. Alternatively if you don’t want to use a number scale, pick one colour for each emotion and use the lightest shade for the lightest intensity, and darker shades as the intensity increases.
Keep this paper (or use your phone) with you throughout the week and be mindful to take it out to track your physical sensations with different emotions.
Give it a name
Things make more sense when we have a name for it. Emotions are no different. Often, giving something a name can be the next step in understanding it, and knowing where to go from there. Sometimes there isn’t a word that quite encapsulates what we’re feeling. In these instances I like to just make one up. Even if a word does exist, sometimes it’s more fun and feels more personal to name it! Have you ever been asked how your feeling and the first word that comes to mind is “bleh” or something of that nature? Use it! But make sure you are using it for that specific feeling.
Again, different emotions represent different intensities. It’s important to distinguish between these various intensities to understand the message behind them.
Calm Down or Utilize the Emotion
So you’ve identified your emotion and ranked it on your 1-10 scale. Now what? Well that depends on the emotion and where you are when the emotion is coming up. It is important to deal with the messages your emotions are giving you. However, if you’re higher up on the scale or somewhere it’s not appropriate to express certain emotions (like during a job interview), calming down is the first thing you’ll want to do. As you go up on the scale with an emotion, you start to become more and more impaired. This can mean being unable to get work done or pay attention in school. This can be negatively interacting with friends, family, coworkers, your boss, the barista, or the mailman. Whether that means saying things you don’t mean, or just not being able to attend to their needs. Remember, it’s okay to ask for space.
The sooner we can notice, identify, and name our emotions, the sooner we are able to implement a strategy to stop that emotion from taking over. The strategy will differ a bit from person to person, and from each notch on the scale. The lower you are on the scale the less intervention you are likely to need. This will be different for different emotions. When you are becoming increasingly angry, you may need to walk away and take some alone time. While when you are becoming depressed, one thing that will help is having social interactions. (Check out this article on Behavioral Activation to learn more about this.)
Some strategies for stopping this emotion from taking over, or from increasing at all, include taking time for self care, journaling, meditating, or just taking a deep breath and grounding yourself. These strategies are best for mid to low intensity on your scale. The optimal time to use these strategies will be individualized for each person. For me, these work best when I’m somewhere in the range of 3-6. For higher intensity emotions you will need to do something more, like intense exercise or taking as cold of a shower as you can handle (check out our TIPPs article for more information on bringing yourself down from intense emotions).
For lower intensity emotions, it’s the optimal time to turn things around and lift your mood. This might mean it’s time to write yourself a love letter, treat yourself to your favourite dinner, pamper yourself, or go surfing. This is also a great time to set new goals for yourself!
Utilize The Emotion
Our emotions are giving us a message. Anxiety signals us that we need to take action or make a decision. Happiness signals us that we are safe, connected, and loved. Sadness shows us how much we care/cared about something. We are sad when our desires aren’t met, when we’ve lost something, or by the behavior of ourselves or others. Sadness shows us we want change. When we allow ourselves to sit with this sadness instead of avoid it, we are honouring these wants and desires. By paying attention to our sadness and validating it, we can start to grow from the experience. Guilt shows us we’ve done something we regret or that isn’t aligned with our values.
Anger shows us something is wrong; we, or something we care about, are in some way in danger. Fear keeps us safe from danger, but sometimes it’s unwarranted or it overstays it’s efficiency. For example, you hear a noise outside late at night, so your fear stops you from going to investigate in case it is dangerous. This is effective and helps keep you safe. However, if you then don’t leave your house for several days out of fear, it has overstayed its usefulness. You might have a fear of being made fun of, so you stop sharing your thoughts and opinions with others. Being aware of what emotion you’re experiencing will allow you to have a better understanding of yourself. It will also allow you to understand how best to change or move forward to improve your quality of life.
Sometimes we react, or overreact, in a way that even surprises us. Well, emotions don’t come out of nowhere, and learning how to pay attention to when these emotions are arising can give us a lot of insight into ourselves. Knowing what situations, people, and environments trigger us can help us know what precautions we need to take. A common trigger for anger is being in traffic. So, in order to prevent the morning rush hour from ruining your day, plan ahead. This could mean leaving earlier, bringing calming tea in the car, or having your favourite playlist or podcasts on while you drive.
For many, family get-togethers can trigger a lot of emotions. Know what emotions might come up for you, and which ones will be the most intense. Have a plan in place. Bring something that will help calm you down if you are getting heated, or pick you up if you are feeling down. If you are able to bring a friend or partner, or have someone in the family you are close with, have a plan to help remove yourself from a situation that is getting to be too much. This could be having your mom ask you to pick something up from the store (or even other room) or your friend/partner say they forgot something in the car so you can take a moment and breathe.
How Counseling Will Help
Understanding your emotions means learning how to identify and differentiate the emotions and what message they are giving you. This is no easy task. Seeking a trained therapist can help you identify and understand what emotions are coming up, and why. Sitting with and sifting through your emotions are no easy task. Therapy provides a safe place for self-exploration, and results in a greater understanding of your self. Your therapist will help you find the tools and skills that best work for you and your needs. Your therapist will help you learn how to articulate your needs and wants in effective ways; as well as understand why certain situations, environments, and people are triggering for you. In instances of grief and bereavement, this can feel too overwhelming to tackle alone.
About Sarah O'Leary
Currently enrolled in the master's program for marriage and family therapy at USD, I am captivated most by the importance of relationships and emotions and their impact on our everyday lives. Both relationships and our emotions help shape who we are as a person. "Relationship" doesn't just mean partner, but rather connections of all kinds. This means everything from strangers, to friends, to partners, and most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself. Emotions are what underlies our thoughts and behaviors, they are the key to understanding ourselves.